Modesto retailers among those having ‘mediocre’ Christmas

The Associated PressDecember 23, 2013 

After a strong start to the holiday shopping season, sales at stores have fallen for the third consecutive week as Americans continue to hold back on spending during what is traditionally the busiest buying period of the year.

Sales at U.S. stores dropped 3.1 percent to $42.7 billion for the week that ended Sunday, compared with the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks data at 40,000 locations. That follows a decline of 2.9 percent and 0.8 percent during the first and second weeks of the month, respectively.

The numbers, which don’t include online sales, are another difficulty in what has largely been a disappointing holiday shopping season for stores. The two-month period that begins Nov. 1 is important for retailers because they can make up to 40 percent of their annual sales during that time.

Retailers started the season cautiously optimistic. But after a strong start through most of November – ShopperTrak said sales were up 3.4 percent for the month – stores have found it increasingly hard to attract shoppers into stores despite big discounts and expanded hours during the final days.

“It’s been a mediocre December,” said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak.

Not all stores were feeling hit, though. “This past weekend was busy for us,” said Chandra Cunha, co-owner of the gift shop Mulberry Lane in Modesto’s McHenry Village shopping center. “I think people were beginning to panic – it crept up on them. We did a lot of gift wrapping that day. ... We have men who shop here specifically because they can get their gifts wrapped.”

Overall, she said, the season has been about the same as last year – business is good. “We’ll take busy any day of the year,” Cunha said.

McHenry Village was bustling over the weekend, as was Vintage Faire Mall, and it was St. Nick, not shopping, that drew some folks.

“The only thing we did yesterday was take the kids to see Santa,” Holly von Dohlen said Monday by phone from Hughson, where she was trying to feel better for Christmas. “I’ve been sick in bed for three days with the flu, so yesterday was the first day I got out.”

The illness didn’t get in the way of her Christmas shopping, though, which she finished the week before. Where did she shop? “All over the place,” von Dohlen said, though she noted that she tried to avoid the rush and crush of malls.

Perhaps that’s true for a lot of people who are “buying local,” shopping online or simply shopping less.

Karen McDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers, which owns or operates 28 malls, estimated that business for the week that ended Sunday was unchanged compared to a year ago. “I felt for sure it was going to be gangbusters. But it was just OK,” McDonald said.

At the Garden State Plaza Mall in Paramus, N.J., on Saturday, Abercrombie & Fitch, AnnTaylor and Express had 50 percent sales, and Aeropostale was discounting its entire assortment up to 70 percent. Still, shoppers were cautious.

Barbara Jackson, 45, was one of them. She said she’s capping her holiday budget at $1,500 – half of what she spent last year. That’s because Jackson, an aide to the elderly, is earning less than last year. “I am more budget conscious,” Jackson said.

ShopperTrak estimates that holiday sales at stores are up 2 percent to $218.4 billion compared with the same period last year. That’s below the 2.4 percent forecast for the two-month period, but the company is standing by that estimate with a day before Christmas and a week before the season’s end.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail group, said it’s standing by its forecast that sales in stores and online combined will be up 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion.

But even online sales, which had been a bright spot for much of the season, aren’t growing at the expected pace.

Online spending from home and work desktop computers in the U.S. from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15 was up 9 percent from the same period last year to $37.8 billion, according to the most recent data from comScore.

That’s below the 14 percent growth the Internet research firm is forecasting for the season. ComScore still expects online sales to grow at the pace for the season, but the category accounts for only about 11 percent of spending in the three months that include the holiday shopping season.

Final sales figures for the holiday shopping season are expected in January.

Retailers still have today ahead of them, of course. Tonight at 9, Toys R Us ends its run of being open for 87 straight hours; and when it closes tonight at 6, Kohl’s will have kept the lights on for more than 100 hours.

Among other major stores, Target is open until 10 tonight, Wal-Mart until 8, and Best Buy and Vintage Faire Mall until 6.

As for shops in McHenry Village, they don’t share business hours. Cunha said Mulberry Lane is open until 3 p.m. but didn’t know hours of neighboring stores.

Bee local news editor Deke Farrow contributed to this report.

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